NFL Patriots Steelers

Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich (50) last played against the Steelers. (Staff photo by Keith Nordstrom)

FOXBORO - Strangely enough, the first game of the upcoming season for the defending Super Bowl-champion New England Patriots may be one of their least interesting ones.

What follows the debut game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Gillette Stadium won't be lacking in intrigue or intensity, that's for sure.

There is a certain charm in having the Patriots, beginning their quest for a fifth Super Bowl ring, do battle in their 2015 debut against a franchise that has already won five. However, there will also be plenty of marquee-quality battles over the next six weeks of the season to underscore the fact that the Patriots will be tested every step of the way if they want to represent the AFC in Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, Calif.

The Patriots and Steelers last met in a season opener on the night Gillette Stadium opened, Sept. 9, 2002, a 30-14 win by the Patriots. This year's game (Sept. 10, 8:30 p.m.) will get the full prime-time treatment from NBC. It's also the first time that the Patriots have opened the season at home since 2010.

But in short order afterward, the Patriots will travel to Buffalo (Sept. 20, 1 p.m.) to see if new Bills' coach Rex Ryan can provide his customary bravado and back it up with an improved team. Another chance to shut the flapping gums of an opponent comes on Oct. 11 (4:25 p.m.) at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, where they will face the Dallas Cowboys and veteran quarterback Tony Romo, who recently traded Deflategate-related quips with presenters at a televised country music awards program.

A showdown with Tom Brady-wannabe Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts follows the next week (Oct. 18, 8:30 p.m.) at Lucas Oil Stadium, followed by Darrelle Revis' return to Foxboro in a Jets uniform (Oct. 25, 1 p.m.).

There are two seeming breaks in that opening stretch - a game at home against Jacksonville on Sept. 27 (1 p.m.), followed by an unusually early bye week in Week 4. But if those provide a nice respite over the first two months of the schedule, the NFL computer made up for it later in the season.

The Patriots' other Thursday outing is Oct. 29 (8:25 p.m.) at home against the Miami Dolphins. Following that are games against a couple of NFC East foes, Washington (Nov. 8, 1 p.m.) at home and the Giants (Nov. 15, 4:25 p.m.) at MetLife Stadium. The Patriots will then treat the nation to more of Ryan's snappy patter when they entertain the Bills on ESPN's Monday Night Football (Nov. 23, 8:30 p.m.), followed six days later by the 17th meeting between Brady and arch-rival Peyton Manning in Denver, another NBC prime-time game (Nov. 29, 8:30 p.m.).

Barring flexible scheduling changes (which again can kick in as early as Week 5), the schedule takes on a more traditional look over the last five weeks. Their game at home against Philadelphia on Dec. 6 is a 4:25 start, followed by four straight Sunday-at-1 outings - at Houston Dec. 13, home against Tennessee on Dec. 20, and closing on the road against two divisional foes, the Jets and Dolphins, on Dec. 27 and Jan. 3 respectively.

They have five nationally televised games, three at home. And in a season in which the NFL is celebrating past Super Bowl matchups, the Patriots will have rematches with two teams they played in three of their seven championship games, the Giants (Super Bowls XLII and XLVI) and the Eagles (Super Bowl XXXIX).

Among the other footnotes to the upcoming season, this will mark the 13th consecutive year in which the Patriots and Colts have played each other, including 11 regular-season meetings. And leading to the Denver game, you are certain to read several times that Brady is 9-3 in regular-season meetings against Manning.

The Patriots haven't closed a season with two road games since 2006, and it's the first time since 2009 that they haven't played the regular-season finale at home.

The Patriots also finalized most of the preseason schedule, with only the starting time of the New Orleans game (Aug. 22 at the Superdome) still undetermined. With that being a Saturday game, it certainly lends credence to speculation that the Patriots and Saints could have a week of joint workouts in the Bayou prior to the contest.

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